My Say: Schools, universities and old boys’ clubs

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 9, 2022 - May 15, 2022.
My Say: Schools, universities and old boys’ clubs
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According to the American National Basketball Association’s website, Michael Jordan is, by acclamation, “the greatest basketball player of all time”. Before he joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984, he was a varsity basketball player at the University of North Carolina for three years, where he was coached by legendary basketball coach Dean Smith.

One fun fact about Jordan is that, throughout his NBA career, even after all his stellar accomplishments winning championships, Most Valuable Player awards, the Defensive Player of the Year award and much more, he still wore his North Carolina basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts in every single game. In fact, Jordan is widely known to have an unwavering loyalty and passion for his alma mater.

In Playing for Keeps by the late David Halberstam, he writes that, “At [the University of North Carolina’s basketball programme], the past not only lived and was enshrined but was skilfully used to open the door to the future. The sense of the past, of all those great teams and all those great players … was an important part of the mystique, hallowed and very much alive.” As the late Chuck Daly, a legendary NBA coach once said, “The Dean Smith thing at North Carolina is like a cult.”

It is perhaps no surprise that an individual’s school and schoolmates can have a profound impact on that individual’s life. After all, it may form the basis of that individual’s social group moving forward — for instance, the friends I talk to the most are largely from my secondary school — as well as potential networking opportunities for that individual. In fact, a good number of my interests were developed because of my friends in school — Magic the Gathering, Dota, comic books and so on.

But being influenced by one’s friends in school is one thing, being influenced by the school itself is quite another. As Halberstam wrote, the history of the University of North Carolina and its basketball programme was “an important part of the mystique, hallowed and very much alive”. It probably isn’t a stretch to imagine that a particular school culture can have that impact on an individual, but what might the societal consequences of that impact be?

Schools and universities are probably the most likely places for “Old Boys’ Clubs” to form. Essentially, a bunch of students — typically boys — become friends at the school or university and have an identity fusion with that school or university. In other words, the culture and traditions of that institution become part of their identity. This can lead to a feeling of, “Oh, he’s one of us but this other person is not” and this sense of “one of us” can reverberate far into adulthood. Perhaps deciding to partner with a friend in starting a business, or connecting with another one for a job search, and more.

To give a clear example, Financial Times writer Simon Kuper very recently published a book called, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. In this book, Kuper describes how the culture and environment of privilege in this particular talent pool — and thus, the friendships and worldviews it created — shaped the United Kingdom today. The individuals in the book are all prominent politicians in the present day UK — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others.

This certainly isn’t to say that Oxford is the ultimate cause of the political climate in the UK today; rather, it highlights just how much a particular group association can have ripple effects far into the future. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reviews the book and writes, “It goes without saying, reading this history, that the overwhelming influence of a single kind of graduate from a single university (and often a single school, Eton) at the top of British public life has been profoundly damaging.”

A recent research paper by political scientist Joan Ricart-Huguet documents the very same scenario in Makerere University in Uganda. Makerere is the oldest university in East Africa, founded in 1922, whose alumni include individuals who were former presidents of their respective countries such as Milton Obote of Uganda, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In this paper, Ricard-Huguet analyses differences in culture within Makerere University, particularly between halls of residence. Halls of residence in the university have distinct cultures, developed in the 1960s and 1970s. As Ricard-Huguet writes, “Livingstone Hall, which opened in 1959 and was named after missionary and explorer David Livingstone, has long been known as a ‘hall of Gentlemen’ because its culture emphasises a respectful and quiet demeanour. Lumumba Hall, named after Congo’s independence leader Patrice Lumumba, has been a socially and politically ‘activist hall’ since its opening in 1971. Northcote Hall, inaugurated in 1952, was a socially cohesive ‘hall of statesmen’ that developed a well-defined political and military hierarchy (the State Supreme Revolutionary Command Council).”

What is especially interesting about these halls is that despite the fact that students are randomised into these halls, the culture of the halls persist, influencing interpersonal outcomes such as trust among these students. Therefore, it isn’t that a budding political activist can choose to live at Lumumba Hall; it’s that a regular student who is randomised into Lumumba Hall is likely to embrace the identity and culture of Lumumba Hall. According to the author, inter-hall competition for status creates identity fusion within those halls which allows for both a sense of belonging and a sense of comparison against another group. And if there’s anything we know about human nature, it’s that we love pitting our group against “the other” even if the groups were determined completely at random.

To be clear, not every school or university necessarily has a distinctive culture or identity. For instance, with my secondary school, I don’t know if I can say what specific norm or behaviour I now practise because of it. But there are plenty of schools, especially boarding schools, which have their own, extremely strong, sense of identity. School spirit is great and fosters deeper bonds, but we need to also be clear about the longer-term consequences of those bonds, for better or worse.

“New blood” in Malaysia — be it in politics, business or nearly any other field — is often described as very welcome and, indeed, necessary. But “new blood” necessarily means going against the status quo. That status quo can be entrenched for a variety of reasons, among which are the types of bonds developed since teenage-hood, forged in boarding schools across the nation, similar to what has been described by Kuper at Oxford, Ricard-Huguet at Makerere University or Halberstam at the University of North Carolina. Progress requires the “new” — we need to be sufficiently aware of the consequences, positive or otherwise, of the persistence of such Old Boys’ Clubs.


Nicholas Khaw is an economist and head of research at Khazanah Nasional Bhd

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